If you needed a reminder, the past two-plus years have made it clear: You can plan all you like, but nothing is guaranteed.
That may be why snowbirds are rethinking their usual travel. More Canadians are checking off bucket lists and trading winters in Florida and Arizona for something completely different. Some take a 60-day cruise. Others alternate travel weeks with resort stays to cover two months exploring places like Southeast Asia.
Others want to settle in a reasonably priced pied-à-terre within walking distance of everything they need. Here are some of the top destinations that fit the bill.
A mild climate and low cost of living draw more Canadians to Mexico than any other country. Many rent homes in San Miguel de Allende, in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains. Its vibrant arts scene attracts artists and writers, plus it offers restaurants, historic architecture and outdoor activities like horseback riding.
Other popular spots are Oaxaca, the “gastronomic capital of Mexico”; Lake Chapala, an attractive and inexpensive retirement community; Puerto Vallarta and Playa del Carmen, for beaches, restaurants, bars and music; and Manzanillo, a fishing paradise.
The number-one European destination for Canadians is Portugal. You’ll love its mild climate, wonderful seafood and fabulous wine and port. It’s also relatively inexpensive to eat and to get around.
Portugal is also a top golf destination, particularly in the Algarve, the most southern part of the country. Lisbon has Old World charm plus bustling shopping districts, restaurants and cafés. Porto has culture, entertainment and a centre classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Combine your stay with a Douro River cruise out of Porto or visit the less-crowded Azores islands, three of which are UNESCO-designated biospheres.
Spain offers sunshine and moderate temperatures and is one of the most affordable countries in Europe. Cities are walkable and have excellent and cheap public transportation, rich history, culture and music. Fish, fruit and vegetables are plentiful, restaurant meals are inexpensive, and the wine is outstanding.
Barcelona has seaside views, museums, stunning architecture and a laid-back lifestyle. Valencia is the birthplace of paella and a haven for food lovers. Costa del Sol is one of the warmest parts of the country. Granada is rich in history and is the least expensive to live in. Madrid is in the exact centre of the country, making it a good base for exploration.
This country is a popular port of call for Mediterranean cruises for its mild winters, plentiful sunshine and rich history. Malta is one of the smallest countries in the world, making it easy to get around with inexpensive bus rides. Activities include sailing, fishing and some of the best scuba diving in the Mediterranean.
Gozo is quiet and has a rural feel, but it has all the amenities you need. St. Paul’s Bay has museums, restaurants, shops and theatres and is a popular choice of snowbirds. Valletta has many restaurants and appeals to those who value culture and history. Mdina is a small UNESCO-listed town that was a set for Game of Thrones.
This is another favourite with Canadians, thanks to its tropical climate, spectacular mountain views, beautiful beaches and reasonable cost of living.
The Central Valley has both big cities and smaller towns. San José has some of the best shopping in the country, while Jacó is a lively coastal resort town. Lake Arenal is Costa Rica’s largest freshwater lake and offers outdoor activities in a quieter rural area. The Gold Coast is home to more than 65 beaches, with access to restaurants, golf courses, yoga studios and healing retreats. The Central Pacific coast is known for shopping and beautiful beaches, and it’s home to the country’s largest LGBTQ2I community.
Canadians flock to Cuba for its affordability and its beaches. The weather is balmy in winter, which is also their dry season. You’ll find direct flights from Montreal and Toronto into beach destinations, but Havana is a two-hour shuttle away from them. Buses are cheap and it’s easy to get around. You can rent apartments, two-bedroom houses or all-inclusive long-stay properties.
Try Havana, with its cobbled streets, historic buildings, active nightlife, museums and theatres. Varadero on the northern coast is best for beach lovers. Also look at smaller and quieter cities like Cienfuegos, a Caribbean port city; Santa Clara, a creative community with old colonial buildings; and Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage city with stunning architecture and a lively cultural scene.
Panama has the top spot in International Living’s Annual Global Retirement Index (internationalliving.com/the-best-places-to-retire). The index looks for pleasant weather, plentiful amenities, housing options, cost of living and more. Panama checks all the boxes.
You’ll find existing communities of snowbirds in Panama City, a bustling city and leading culinary destination; Coronado, a laid-back beach town with a golf course, supermarkets and country club; and Boquete, a lush haven in the mountain region with a spring-like climate, cultural events and outdoor activities. Playa Blanca has some of the best resorts, white sands and dry weather.
This Central American country is off the beaten track and known for its natural beauty and laid-back lifestyle. Divers and snorkellers enjoy the marine life, and the country also draws hikers and bird enthusiasts.
You’ll find Mayan relics, rivers, rainforest and rich history in the Cayo District. Corozal is a sleepy town built on a Mayan site. Ambergris Caye is an island known for snorkelling, and nearby Caye Caulker is a similar but smaller beachfront community. Placencia is a charming seaside town with beautiful beaches, restaurants and chic shops.
DR is known for its beautiful beaches, warm waters, slower pace of life, outdoor activities and affordable housing and food. Seafood and fruit are plentiful, and coffee and chocolate are made locally. An extensive bus system easily gets you around.
You’ll find affordable apartments and villas in the capital of Santo Domingo, with its cobbled streets, shopping, dining, bars and theatres. Las Terrenas is a laid-back, walkable, multicultural beach town that supports an active lifestyle. Punta Cana is a popular tourist destination, with plenty of restaurants, shops and bars. Cabarete in the lush mountain area is both culturally vibrant and good for hiking and mountain biking.
Want to stay in Canada? While the rest of the country is still slogging through winter, Victoria welcomes the start of spring in January. Several hotels have “snowbird rentals,” with monthly rates from October to April. Travel agencies also have extended-stay options with one-bedroom suites with kitchens.
Smaller communities to try include Ucluelet, a world-renowned fishing destination and a centre for whale watching. Parksville has a growing retirement community in a climate perfect for an active lifestyle. The area has golf courses, a vibrant arts scene, and is a short drive to skiing at Mount Washington.
Do your research
With so many options, ask friends and travel agents for recommendations, and try short-term stays before committing to several months. If you want to travel solo, check if your travel agency offers “hosted group travel,” which lets you tag along with an organized group.
Above all, appreciate the differences in your home-away-from-home, and spare a thought for the friends and family left shivering in Canada!
Choose your long-stay vacation
Many travel agencies are on board with long-stay vacations and have created packages that include airfare, accommodations, a local host and more. One example is Merit Travel (merittravel.com/rtoero-en), an RTOERO-preferred sponsor offering special benefits for members.
The company offers four-week vacations in multiple countries, letting you live like a local with the perks of a tourist, including a Merit host. Merit created their long-stay approach for a small RTOERO group about 15 years ago, and the idea has grown in popularity with members ever since.
Jackie Moir, manager of affinity partnerships and business development in Merit’s retail division, shares these questions to help you pick a destination:
- Is it important to get a direct flight to the destination? There are flights from all major gateways in Canada to connect to Merit groups, with direct-flight departures from Toronto.
- How close is the arrival airport to your living quarters? Merit’s long-stay properties are less than a one-hour drive from the airport.
- How mobile are you? Consider your accommodation; can you get a ground-level unit? Also consider how easily you can get around. Steep cliffside trails and cobblestone streets in many places in Europe may look charming but are hard to walk on.
- Do you want a beach or city environment? Or both? Merit’s long-stay properties are within a short walk or bus ride of a beach.
- What type of activities are important to you? Check if the location offers golf, hiking, water sports or other outdoor activities, or is ideal for touring museums, art galleries and architectural gems.
- What’s your preferred daytime temperature? Portugal and Spain have moderate temperatures in the winter months, ranging from 15 to 20ºC. Places like Costa Rica will be much warmer.
- Do you prefer a full-service resort or a self-sufficient house or apartment? Check if you get meal service or access to kitchen facilities.
- Do you plan to mostly cook at your home, or do you want to be close to restaurants? Choose locations within walking distance or a short local bus ride of restaurants, markets and shops.